HOMILY FOR THE 5TH SUNDAY OF LENT – MARCH 29, 2020
A lot of people all over the world are finding themselves more or less stuck at home these days, due to the necessary restrictions imposed on us by the present pandemic. That’s obviously not so bad as being dead for four days as Lazarus was, but many might still wish someone would say to them what Jesus said to Lazarus: “Lazarus come out!”
Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.
The gospel we just heard recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles which John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond to him with faith. But Jesus’ raising his friend Lazarus from the dead also led to the authorities’ decision to have Jesus executed. So life and death are mixed together in this story – as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death.
Since ancient times, this Gospel has been especially associated with the Lenten experiences of catechumens and penitents preparing to be baptized or reconciled at Easter, a renewal we are all invited to identify ourselves with. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey – and to trust the risen Lord to raise us to beyond whatever confines us at present to a fuller life in his kingdom.
In the Gospel story, the friendship shared by Jesus and Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first notified him that Lazarus was sick. Strangely, however, he seemed to ignore their message, thus setting the stage for this great miracle, and also for the famous conversation with Martha, which for so many centuries has been read at Catholic funerals.
Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else. We, however, start from the fundamental fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death – and his whole life – in the light of that.
Unlike Jesus, Lazarus came out of the tomb to resume his ordinary life (and then to die again eventually). Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. No one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat. Meanwhile, however, in this in-between time which we still live in, bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to come out, and he emerged still confined, bound hand and foot, needing others to untie him.
We are all, in some sense, confined like Lazarus. But we are also called to do like the bystanders and help one another to find our way from the darkness to God’s kingdom, helping one another along the way, untying whatever blocks us.
John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus – and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another – and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.
After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond – one way or the other.
HOMILY FOR THE 4TH SUNDAY OF LENT – MARCH 22, 2020
The Gospel according to John portrays Jesus performing a series of miracles, which John calls “signs.” The specific “sign” in today’s Gospel is a truly monumental miracle, for, as the formerly blind man himself testifies, it was unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. And, just as the blind man receives physical sight, he is also gradually given increasing insight into who Jesus is, culminating in his profession of faith, “I do believe, Lord.” He receives his physical sight through a series of steps in which Jesus spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay which he smears on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man goes, washes, and returns able to see. Meanwhile, he gains increasing insight into who Jesus is – a growth in faith which exactly parallels the unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries, who can certainly see but are spiritually blind – obstinately so. Physically the Pharisees could see, but spiritually they would not see, because they already knew with absolute certitude that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the man blind from birth, theirs was a willful choice not to see.
It’s easy to appreciate why the Church chose this Gospel account to express what happens when one turns one’s life around and obeys Jesus’ command to go and wash in the waters of baptism. What happens is a wonderfully new and bright outlook on life. At the same time, it is also an enormous challenge. Embracing belief in Christ opens one to a new life of faith and worship, but also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that still seems to dominate the world, challenging us to reject our own blind spots and to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to live in the light.
Meanwhile, easily overlooked in this wonderful story is a sidebar at the beginning when the disciples speculated about the cause of the man’s blindness. In that pre-scientific age, the disciples wondered whether someone’s sin was to blame – an opinion Jesus explicitly rejected.
We, of course, with the insights of modern science, know the natural causes of disease; but, as our present predicament demonstrates, we may feel just as confused and helpless as our ancestors as we are confronted by a new and dangerous disease. Indeed, because we have expectations that they did not have about our ability to control the natural world and to organize our lives as we wish, we may be even more unsettled than they were, when sickness strikes so unexpectedly as this pandemic has done, suddenly forcing us to stop whatever else we thought we would be doing.
Questions like “why?” are important, of course; but much more important are questions like “what do we do now?” Just as the no-longer-blind man asked Jesus for direction, we too need to ask what we can do in response to this unexpected challenge. Now obviously doctors and healthcare workers and policymakers have particular responsibilities and things they need to do. But, for all of us, there are two things, I think, that we are especially challenged to do.
The first, of course, is to pray. Because we are in danger does not mean God has completely abandoned us, and because we cannot at Mass does not mean we should abandon the new life God has called us to. I don’t know if you saw the pictures of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage last Sunday through the empty streets of Rome, visiting shrines connected with experiences of God’s presence and healing action in past plagues. I found those photos profoundly moving.
The second thing that we are all being challenged to do flows from the first. Just as God does not abandon us, and we must not abandon our relationship with God, so too we must not abandon our relationships with one another. The more we are required to distance ourselves physically from one another, the more we must NOT distance ourselves spiritually. If ever there was a time to reach out to one another by telephone or Facebook or whatever, it is now – especially when so many of our brothers and sisters are alone and may need our help to meet ordinary needs and to allay extraordinary fears. So that even in this terribly frightening time, the works of God may continue to be made visible in our world.